Tag Archives: Vienna

Teaching wolves new tricks

The process of learning often involves mimicry or imitation.  In research published in the journal PLoS One, scientists from the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna report on their behaviour experiments involving wolves and dogs.

The results show that wolves observe one another more closely than dogs and so are better at learning from one another. 

Photo Credit: Walter Vorbeck

Photo Credit: Walter Vorbeck

The scientists found that wolves are considerably better than dogs at opening a container, providing they have previously watched another animal do so. Their study involved 14 wolves and 15 mongrel dogs, all about six months old, hand-reared and kept in packs.

Each animal was allowed to observe one of two situations in which a trained dog opened a wooden box, either with its mouth or with its paw, to gain access to a food reward. Surprisingly, all of the wolves managed to open the box after watching a dog solve the puzzle, while only four of the dogs managed to do so. Wolves more frequently opened the box using the method they had observed, whereas the dogs appeared to choose randomly whether to use their mouth or their paw.

The researchers think that it is likely that the dog-human cooperation originated from cooperation between wolves. During the process of domestication, dogs have become able to accept humans as social partners and thus have adapted their social skills to include interactions with them, concomitantly losing the ability to learn by watching other dogs.

Source:  University of Vienna media release

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Harness fit in guide dogs

A research team at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna) have studied the forces that guide dogs are exposed to during their work to ascertain what types of harness are most suitable.

Guide dogs walk under constant tension. A well-fitting harness is extremely important for the animals (Photo: Michael Bernkopf/Vetmeduni Vienna)

Guide dogs walk under constant tension. A well-fitting harness is extremely important for the animals (Photo: Michael Bernkopf/Vetmeduni Vienna)

A proper harness that enables good communication between the blind person and the dog is an important factor to support the dog’s well-being, while a poorly fitting harness may result in health problems and impaired communication between dog and owner.

The team members, movement analysts and physiotherapists, examined the distribution of pressure in working guide dogs by placing pressure sensors beneath their harnesses. Eight guide dogs were filmed with a trainer while climbing steps, avoiding obstacles, turning left and right and walking straight ahead. To visualize the movements, the animals, the trainers and the harnesses were equipped with reflective markers. The positions of the markers were recorded by a total of ten cameras.

The results showed that the bottom right of the animals’ chests is particularly stressed. As Barbara Bockstahler explains, “Guide dogs walk under constant tension. They are usually on their owners’ right and in front of them.” The scientists found that the pressure on the right side of a dog’s chest may equate to up to 10 per cent of the animal’s weight. In contrast, the dog’s back experiences far less pressure. “It is important for guide dogs to exercise regularly without a harness to compensate for the lopsided pressure they experience in their work”, says Bockstahler.

Very rigid harnesses enable quick and finely tuned communication between dogs and owners but cause stress to the animals. The more stiffly the harness is anchored to the handle, the more pressure the animal experiences. The most comfortable harness relies on a hook-and-loop connection, which provides the least pressure on the dog, although for long-haired dogs a plastic clip version is favourable.

The researchers want to study guide dogs for a longer period of time to find out whether any of the harnesses are associated with long-term problems in the animals.   They require partners and sponsors for this work.

The results of this study have been published in the Veterinary Journal.

Source:  Vetmeduni Vienna press release

Using dog hair for diagnosis

Dog hair is used to diagnose hyperadrenocorticism (Photo: Ouschan/Vetmeduni Vienna)

Dog hair is used to diagnose hyperadrenocorticism (Photo: Ouschan/Vetmeduni Vienna)

Many dogs suffer from hyperadrenocorticism, more commonly known as Cushing’s Disease.   The disease is characterised by excessive amounts of hormones known as glucocorticoids that are produced by the adrenal glands.  The disease is more common in older dogs.  Most cases result from a tumour in the pituitary gland but some are caused by tumours in the adrenal glands.

The symptoms of a dog with Cushing’s Disease often ‘creep up’ on the owner and vet.  Common symptoms include excessive drinking (and urination) and overeating, leading to a pot-bellied appearance, as well as with loss of hair.  Since all of these symptoms can stem from a number of disorders, it is difficult to be certain.  The methods traditionally used to diagnose the disease are complicated and costly and usually give information about the hormone concentrations at the time a sample is taken.  Since most dogs are stressed by veterinary examinations, their hormone levels will peak  because of the stress – making it difficult to rely on the analytical results.

Researcher Claudia Ouschan and colleagues at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna decided to look for a way to monitor the long-term levels of glucocorticoids in dog hair that would also offer a diagnostic option that was less stressful to the dogs.   She compared the levels of cortisol, corticosterone and cortisone in the hair of twelve dogs with hyperadrenocorticism and ten healthy dogs.  The results were striking:  all three hormones were found at far higher levels in the hair of dogs with Cushing’s Disease than in the control group, with the increase in cortisol particularly pronounced.

She concludes, ‘we think it (our findings) have real promise for use as a rapid and non-invasive method to diagnose hyperadrenocorticism.’

Her research has been published in the journal Veterinary Dermatology.

Source:  University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna media statement

Blessed bonds between dogs and humans

This is going to come as no surprise to many of you – but research has confirmed that the owner-dog bond is similar to that of parent-child.Paw in handScientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna (known as Vetmeduni Vienna) have studied the phenomenon known as the ‘secure base effect’ between dogs and their owners.

Human infants use their caregivers as a secure base when it comes to interacting with the environment and the researchers wanted to know if dogs found the same security with their owners.

The research team, led by Lisa Horn, examined the dogs’ reactions under three different conditions: “absent owner”, “silent owner” and “encouraging owner”. The dogs could earn a food reward by manipulating interactive dog toys.

The dogs were much less keen on working for food when their caregivers were not there than when they were. Whether an owner additionally encouraged the dog during the task or remained silent, had little influence on the dog’s level of motivation.

In a follow-up experiment, the research team replaced the owner with an unfamiliar person. The scientists observed that dogs hardly interacted with the strangers and were not much more interested in trying to get the food reward than when the stranger was not there. The dogs were much more motivated only when their owner was present. The researchers concluded that the owner’s presence is important for the animal to behave in a confident manner.

Horn said, “One of the things that really surprised us is  that adult dogs behave towards their caregivers like human children do.”

Am I surprised? Not really.  (This blog ain’t named Doggy Mom for nothing!)

You can read the journal article “The Importance of the Secure Base Effect for Domestic Dogs – Evidence from a Manipulative Problem-Solving Task” online here.

Proud to be Daisy's doggy mom

Proud to be Daisy’s mom